Behind the Build: Interview with Greg Smith, Director of BIM/VDC, Yates Construction

Implementing construction technology isn't about knowing how to use a tool or rolling out a new platform across the organization. Since AEC is such a collaborative and multi-disciplinary sector, team knowledge and communication play a huge role in the success of any tech initiative. 

Greg Smith, Director of BIM/VDC at Yates Construction, understands this deeply. As someone with a business and consulting background (not to mention he's incredibly passionate about education and training), Greg knows how to build a knowledgeable and cohesive team.

We spoke to Greg recently and discussed his career journey and experience with construction technology. We also dive into what it takes to implement tech solutions and cultivate highly capable teams.

Tell me about Yates Construction and what you specialize in

Yates is one of the largest general contractors in the country. It's a vertically integrated company, so we have development and engineering. We also have trade contractors, like electrical and mechanical. This allows us to do a lot of self-performed work, especially on those scopes.  

Regarding the types of construction that Yates does — it's pretty much everything across the board, from industrial to commercial and other categories. There are two types that we do more than anything else: casinos and advanced manufacturing, like battery plants. But again, everything is fair game. 

As for me, I'm involved in virtual design and construction, along with innovation. So anything BIM, VDC, and innovation within the company, that's what I'm involved in.

Walk me through your career and what led you to becoming Director of BIM/VDC

I have a business background. I went to school for business, and after that, I started working for a small technical services company, doing CAD and design work.

From there, I went on my own and did consulting in the realm of CAD and tying databases to CAD. I worked with many different municipalities trying to figure out all the technology. Then, I started consulting for a large general contractor, Skanska. After several engagements, they offered me a job, and I worked there for many years. 

When I started with Skanska, they said, "Greg, we need to figure this BIM thing out. Can you help us?" And that was the start of it. I helped establish the technology and processes necessary, tying the business and technology together.

Given your passion for education, how do you integrate educational initiatives into your role as a construction technology leader?

First, I want to define education and training because a lot of people say "education," a lot of people say "training," and many times, they combine them. But here’s the way I define it: education is sharing knowledge and training is hands-on activities, like software training. 

They're two distinct things, and whether we're doing education or training depends on the audience and what we're trying to get across to them. 

So, within a construction company, about 99% of people get an education. They get that big-picture stuff—i.e., "What does this mean for the company?" Then, a much smaller percentage of people get hands-on training by touching the software because not everybody is a modeler, and not everybody has to federate models and things like that. 

With the training, we always start with "Why." Defining that why is extremely important and we need to identify the value of why we are doing this for the company so it's not just, "Hey, go push these buttons."

One thing I've learned after doing it for many years is not to overdo education. Many companies approach education by training everybody on different things, and suddenly, people have a bachelor's degree in BIM or VDC, but it's not really necessary. You should focus on some of the core things, and then people can self-educate from there if they're interested. The key is to provide core education that helps them do their job today. And then, if they have further interest, they can self-educate or get additional training if it’s necessary for their role.

I'll also add that there is a tendency to overcomplicate things, especially in the BIM or VDC worlds. Sure, it makes us sound smart, and we feel good about ourselves, but we totally lose our audience. So, we need to simplify rather than overcomplicate so that everybody gets it. 

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Yates Construction?

Hands down, it is the VDC team that we've put together. That's the proudest accomplishment that I've had. We've built an incredibly talented and diverse team of BIM and VDC people and innovators within the company. They can do anything. It is just so awesome when they all come together. 

When we think of diversity, we think of race and gender. Of course, the team is incredibly diverse in those two ways, but it's also the diversity within different skill sets. Some people focus on preconstruction, others are all about operations or construction, while some team members have other focus areas within their careers. 

So we're bringing all that together with all these diverse backgrounds, making for a wonderful team.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

The biggest challenge in any organization is communication. And the biggest challenge with VDC in construction is the misunderstandings of the communication. 

I've been in a few different general contractors, and every time I go to a GC and meet with the project teams they say, "We know all about that BIM stuff. You don't have to teach us. We've got it." 

But then you start digging into it a little bit, and you realize that they really don't. There are all these different misunderstandings of what that is. And that's a huge challenge—helping people change even if they don't think they need to.

Technology—specifically Autodesk Construction Cloud — helps because it's a common data environment. We can point people to one location to access a model and view it very simply. They only have to make a few clicks to access the model content. That really helps. 

Again, when we're talking about education, there's a tendency to overcomplicate, and we need to simplify. So, if we can do that with tools like Autodesk Construction Cloud, it helps drive that communication and the understanding of what we're trying to do.

How does technology like Autodesk Construction Cloud help your team make more informed decisions on your projects?  

Autodesk Construction Cloud enhances our ability to communicate effectively and provides a single source of truth. People can access the information quickly without having to search for different things. 

I'll give you an example. Let's say somebody has a OneDrive folder set up and starts putting content on it. Now, OneDrive is an individual location, and you have to send information out if you want to share it with others. 

When we have a common data environment, I don't need to look in your OneDrive account for that information. And that's the benefit of Autodesk Construction Cloud. It puts information in one common data hub that everybody can access. And then we structure the data so they can find it really easily. 

And the information that we have from Autodesk Construction Cloud allows us to make better decisions because we can find that info quickly. We can track data and create dashboards based on them.

This means that people get an at-a-glance view of the project with that dashboard. Now, a VDC coordinator on the project might dive deeper. A project executive may want to see that dashboard. They will say, "Okay, we're on track." 

That's how Autodesk Construction Cloud helps us make better decisions. We have the information, we can track it, and we can create dashboards to see it quickly.

What do you value most about your partnership with Autodesk?

Autodesk has always been a great partner, and it's not just the technology. Of course, Autodesk makes great tools that we use all the time, but I appreciate that the company goes beyond that. 

Autodesk reaches out to the construction sites, saying, "We want to understand your business so we can help you better." That person-to-person contact really helps.

You're not just throwing a tool out there and saying, "Okay, go figure it out." Autodesk actually comes into our business and says, "Okay, let's see how you're using our tool so we can help you use it better." That's really valuable. 

Another big thing has been the Accelerator programs we've utilized quite a bit. Autodesk brings in the expert and gives us training. Then, we record it and copy it onto Teams so everybody in the company can see the materials. All that training enhances our knowledge and helps us do a better job.

When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at Yates Construction? How do you think AI will impact the construction industry?

As far as innovation and productivity, these things need to be supported at the top, but they also need to be driven from the bottom. All the great ideas come from the project sites. 

What I'm trying to do within Yates is to enhance the culture of innovation by bringing new ideas to the table and giving people a safe place to take risks. Nobody wants to fail, but they need to take those risks to do better or to try something new. 

And so it's giving them that environment where they can try something new while knowing it's okay to fail. Most innovations fail, but what can we learn from that, and how can we apply some of that learning to the business? That's a culture of innovation.

Regarding AI, one of the things we've seen over the last year is this incredible change. What you thought AI was a year ago is totally different from what you think of AI today. The speed and volume of change are mind-blowing. The key is to narrow it down to something we can actually focus on. That's challenging because you're trying to separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what's important.

That said, I do think AI will help us better understand and process construction data. We create vast amounts of data on every project, and no single person can know everything.

There isn't one person who can look at the data and say, "Okay, I understand those thousands of pages of drawings. I understand those thousands of pages of specs." I think that's what AI is going to allow us to do. AI will enable us to consume information in a more accessible format so we can understand things better.

What advice would you give men and women entering the construction industry?

Here's what I love about construction: no two days are the same

Things are different from day to day to day. The same thing can be said for those out on a construction site. If you're sitting in a construction trailer, there are new challenges that come up every day. You're constantly using your brain. You're working with different people. You're getting pulled in multiple directions, which can be stressful. But you never get bored.

I would also tell the next generation that construction is a good job. It's a massive part of our world, and you can have a good career in construction and stay with one company or stay within the industry for your entire career.

At the end of the project, it's very satisfying because you get to look and say, "Hey, I built that." And you tell all your friends, "Look, I built that." Whether it's a warehouse or an iconic structure, you have a very tangible way of saying, "Look what I did."  

I would also advise people to participate in internships. Many construction companies hire through those programs, so get out there and get an internship. 

And the last thing I would say is just maintain a positive attitude. You should also recognize that learning 40 years of construction takes 40 years. It's a very experienced-based industry. It's not something you can read in a book and be an instant construction expert. You learn something new every day. You learn something new on every project, even if you've done that type of project before. 

So, being a lifelong learner is great, but if you go in with a positive attitude, you'll have a long career in construction.

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.